By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/29/2005 2:50:56 PM ET 2005-03-29T19:50:56

The second meeting of Iraq’s newly formed National Assembly ended only minutes after it began on Tuesday after the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis failed to agree on a government, leaving several key positions vacant. NBC's Tom Aspell discusses the political stalemate in Baghdad.

What are the major areas of conflict between these groups that seem to prevent some sort of compromise?
Well, while the Shiite and the Kurds both seemed to have worked out to mutual satisfaction a division of power — whereby the Kurds will take the presidency and probably the oil ministry and foreign affairs, the Shiites will get the ministry of finance, the ministry of the interior and the powerful post of prime minister — it still leaves out the Sunnis, who boycotted the election eight weeks ago. 

So today, in only the second session of the national assembly since the election, the compromise [involved] ... the Kurds and the Shiites looking around for a speaker, and they offered the post to Iraq’s interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, who turned it down.  So at the moment they are stuck without a Sunni candidate to fill that post of speaker. 

So the second session of the National Assembly broke up only after just a few minutes of talking, when several members stood up and criticized the leaders for not moving faster to form a government.  In the end they adjourned while promising to meet again, perhaps after this weekend.  But right now, the sticking point will be the speaker.  It’s not a very powerful position but it is thought that if the Sunnis could come up with a candidate, then that would be acceptable to everybody in Iraq and would demonstrate clearly that the big winners in the election, the Shiite and the Kurds, are determined not marginalize the Sunnis.   

Do you have any idea why he would turn down the job?
I think al-Yawer felt that it wasn’t powerful enough.  I think he’s determined, after all these months of being president of the interim authority here, to retain some of the reins of power and he has said himself he would rather be a vice-president than speaker of the house.  So he took himself out of the running for that job.

With reports of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi walking out of today's meeting and the inability of the factions to reach agreements, how do the ordinary Iraqis feel?  Do they have faith in this new process?
I think they have faith in the process but there is a growing impatience among the people here.  Several today were watching television in cafes and restaurants outside of the parliament building until it was interrupted.

One of the diners said the postponement was not good for the Iraqi people.  'We want stability and we want improvement in the security situation and in the stability of the country,' he said.  So many people are making a direct link between having a government formed as quickly as possible so that it will improve the security situation. 

What are some of the major hurdles that stand in the way of giving the Sunnis a say in the new government?
Well for starters they didn’t have many seats in the National Assembly at all.  The Kurds and the Shiite have 215 seats out of only 275 seats in the parliament.  So the Sunnis have about 15 or 16 seats, which is nothing compared to the huge number the Shiite and the Kurds have.  And I think there is a genuine regret on part of the Sunnis that they did not take more of a part in the electoral process.

It’s a question really of convincing the country that this government is here for the good of all the people, not just the one party or the other. And to do that they really have to bring the Sunnis, who appear to be the main supporters of the insurgency, into the political process.  And the only way to do that is to give them, not (just) any representative inside the new parliament, but some degree of power in the new government.

How do Iraqis feel about the delay stemming from today’s meeting?
Some of them are saying if the delay is the interest of bureaucracy, it’s not a problem.  But they still want them to speed up the process.  Because the situation of getting a government as quickly as possible is in the interest of Iraqi people.  To get it done right, people are willing to wait.  People are frustrated that eight weeks after the elections, they still don’t see a government in charge of the county.

And right now the security situation is relatively quiet — attacks not just on Americans but attacks in general have been down since the elections. People think the sooner the government can take its place the better. But the longer the delay the more danger the security situation will get out of control.

What's behind the apparent drop in insurgent attacks on Americans in the last month?
Well, there are two reasons.  One is that the attacks against Americans in general have gone down. Casualties however still remain quite steady.  It’s usually between 20-30 American deaths a month. But the attacks on Iraqi security forces have stepped up and they are claiming quit a number of victims among Iraqi security forces.  And the reason for that is the American forces are simply better protected. They are inside their bases and the Iraqi security forces are more exposed than the Americans. So the casualty count is bound to go down for Americans and up for the Iraqis. 

But I think it’s too early to say the insurgency is over, or that a tipping point has been reached, or any of those clichés.  People just don’t know.  They don’t know whether it’s because many leaders of the insurgency have been rounded up or many of the key organizers have been captured.  It could have been the drying up of funds from abroad or funds that Saddam Hussein had put aside to fund the insurgents.  They may be running out of money but they are certainly not running out of weapons. There are enough weapons and explosives in the country to go for many years.  So even American military commanders cannot put their fingers on the reasons for why the attacks have gone down.  But everybody is saying that it’s not over yet. 

What influence can the Sunnis, who may get roles in a government, have on the Sunni insurgents?  
For about the last three or four months there have been rumors that there are contacts between American military commanders and, if not insurgent leaders, then tribal leaders who may have influence over insurgents in their areas. Nobody has gone as far as to say there are peace talks between either the Americans or the Iraqi security forces and the insurgents.  But there have been several hints to say that there are contacts taking place. 

The Sunnis who are represented in the national assembly, are thought to have absolutely no contact with insurgents.  Remember Sunnis were encouraged by their religious leaders to boycott the elections eight weeks ago and they did so. To their regret because they only have just a few seats in the assembly but there is no evidence to suppose that any members of the National Assembly, the Sunni members, have any links with the insurgents or even contacts with them.

What can you tell me about the state of the country since the election two months ago?  Have you seen any improvements?
I don’t think there is any visible improvement. You don’t see any increase in supplies of electricity, you don’t see increased job opportunities or money on the streets or anything like that.  I think it’s really too early. What Iraqis are hoping for is once the government is formed then the ministries will be reorganized to reflect the new ministers heading those agencies and then the work or unemployment situation will get better.  Right now it’s too early to say.

In the meantime, we are in sort of a caretaker stage with all these ministries at the moment and they are hamstrung and dependent largely on coalition aid, coalition advice and the coalition offices to distribute the money and run the ministries as they see fit right now.

But I think many people feel that once the government is established and the revenues from the oil fields is distributed throughout the ministries according to Iraqi needs, then things will get better.  So I think everybody is looking forward to the formation of the government so that they can get on with the business of running the country, spreading the wealth a little more evenly and increasing employment opportunities.

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